The cool morning air hits my face as I grab my bag and shoes from the trunk. With each step toward the gym, I'm reminded that I've made a choice few would imitate. The street lights are still the only source of light. The hoodie on my head hides the lack of attention I gave my appearance this morning. Walking briskly as if I was late to a critical board meeting. I open the door, and I'm greeted by a familiar face, a younger kid, probably in his early 20s, taking the graveyard shift until he finishes school. We have our greeting down to a quick nod as if to say we both know why we're here. Totally different reasons but the same respect none the less. It's 5:30 AM his shift is almost over. Mine is just about to begin...
An Empty gym
At last, I have arrived. Home away from home. The place where I get to become anyone I want to. For the next two hours, the most important of my day, I get to set the tone that will help carry me through the rest. That first step on the hardwood. How I imagine the first step on the moon felt. Foreign yet familiar. I feel lighter. Like Im doing something important. Not necessarily natural but all too human. There's a bounce that every hooper can feel right now reading this sentence. The transformation has started. I am no longer locked into my position as a father or what I do for work. With each step onto the hardwood, I can feel the world's weight come off of my shoulders, and it's as if these gym lights are the same ones that lit up Staples when Shaq and Kobe were three p'eatin. As I walk to my designated spot, where I change from my hooper slides to my basketball shoes, I grow six inches taller my chin starts to raise a little higher. This is a feeling I've learned to associate with an empty gym as early as I can remember. When self-confidence wasn't even in my vocabulary yet, and no father figure helped me create an identity of my own. I used an empty gym and a basketball to figure out who I was.
Time to lace em up
First ankle brace on, one left to go. Considering the years and miles on my knees and ankles, everything still holds up. Sure, some ankle and, occasionally, a back brace might be necessary to get through a session, but ill take it. I thank my body for allowing me another day to live and to hoop. I slip on my newest weapon of choice, Jordan Luka 1's all-white with red trim. They fit like a glove. Comparable to one of the greatest hooping shoes ever made, the Kobe 5. As I slip them on, a thought runs through my mind. These shoes look too damn good to play in. A hooper and a sneaker head's most crucial decision. Stock or Rock?I unzip my Nike Elite baller bag and pull out a Wilson Evolution. I spin the ball with a backspin toward the ceiling as I simultaneously stand up. My knees popped, and the tightness in my hamstrings and lower back reminded me of my age. The ball lands in perfect synchrony with me as I stand, and now I'm ready to go.
The sounds of silence.
What comes first?
The squeak of the sneaker or that first bounce of the ball. Maybe it happens at the same time? It doesn't matter, does it?
We all know it still gives us a feeling deep down inside that is hard to match. For me, it signifies a new day. A chance to get better. Maybe I practice that move I saw from my two-hour deep dive on Jalen Brunson's footwork. Maybe today it's free throws. Which part of my game can I master today? The silence allows me to make a clear decision. The sounds help me start.
I start close to the rim. Embarrassingly close. I saw Ron Artest or Metta World Peace; however, you like your Ron. I saw him in the background of some media day coverage years ago, practicing form follow-through two feet from the basket. I thought to myself, this guy is an NBA all-star caliber player, and he's practicing like a kid in grade school. It was instantly apparent that this guy had enough humility to risk looking silly in front of these cameras by practicing a flat foot to tippy toe jumper. Since that day, it's always been a part of my warmup. Shot confidence. Seeing the ball go through the rim does a lot for a basketball player. Even for three-point sharpshooters. Once they get a layup in transition or see a free throw go down. That shot confidence increases to the point where it doesn't matter whos guarding them or where they are shooting from.
I see the ball go through the rim. Ok... "Im Him"
I AM FREE.
The workout is coming to an end. I've hit about 94% of the 500 shots I've taken. The dribbling was clean. Im sweating profusely. I love it. I can feel the weight of my shirt has doubled since I first arrived. They call it sweat equity. I put my hands on the bottoms of my shorts like Im Mike Jordan, and I just dropped 30 on Karl Malone's head. Now a few people have walked into the gym. All for the treadmills and weights, which I ignore every time I see an empty court. I am still alone. It feels fantastic. I wouldn't have it any other way. Wait...
Someone walks in. With an eerily similar disposition to mine when I first got here. He looks like he's gaining confidence with every step he takes toward his designated spot so he can change from his hooper slides to his hooper shoes. Our eyes meet for a second, and we give each other the "Nod" He laces up his kicks while I drain a few more shots before I go. He's got the new LeBrons. Ugly. A good basketball shoe, though. Just when I hit what I thought would be my last bucket of the day, he stood up with the same ball spun towards him but without the popping of the knees. He is quicker, too, so I know he doesn't have the tightness in the legs or needs the back brace like me.
Just before I walk off the court and head back to reality, I hear the sound of a swish so pure it stops me from taking another step. I turn around, we lock eyes again, and I say. "One on One?